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September 27, 2020
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Not in my backyard...

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
November 29, 2019

This is a difficult story to write. And a story about homelessness, may be a difficult story to read. Presenting facts and figures without putting a personal face on the issue solves little. We all look at those numbers through our own experiences and biases, right? We can shake our head in agreement, have empathy, wish something more could be done. I suspect most of us just want to live our lives. We drive or walk by the panhandler in the parking lot, on the street corner, or in front of our store.  We thank our lucky stars, that isn’t us or our family. Then the issue shows up in our neighborhood, and the story becomes immediate and personal. Now what?

Let’s start at the state level. “Homelessness is not just a problem for San Joaquin county. It’s a statewide issue. Every major city in California has been hit by the crisis. Across California, the homeless population jumped by 16 percent between 2018 to 2019. With a total of about 130,000 people without a permanent place to live, California has the largest homeless population in the United States.” That quote is from http://sacobserver.com/2019/08/working-but-still-homeless-in-california%ef%bb%bf/ article published in August 2019. Substitute Sonoma county for San Joaquin county and the story remains valid likely is a fair opinion to hold.

So, let’s focus on Sonoma County. Back in 2017 according to the Sonoma County.gov page - “Almost 3,000 people are homeless on any given night in Sonoma County.” They reported a jump of 6% in homelessness following the October 2017 fires. The January 2019 count saw 2,951 homeless folks in the county. A small decline from 2018 but still near the 3,000 count from earlier reports. 66% of those counted were “unsheltered” meaning they had no place indoors to sleep. Over half, 57%, have been homeless for more than a year. 68 percent couldn’t afford to rent. While 48percent reported no job or not enough income to rent.  The full report of the 2019 count can be found at: 

http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/CDC/Homeless-Services/Homeless

But there’s more to the story than an annual count full of facts and figures. What exactly does homelessness mean? Defining the term is a first step. As listed on https://www.rpcity.org/services/residential_services/homelessness 

“Characteristics of Individuals Experiencing Homelessness:

- Have Nots – These individuals do not have the resources to be housed, most commonly income. Many benefit from low-income housing and programs that provide short-term financial assistance to help them get into a home of their own.

- Can Nots – These individuals often suffer from complex medical problems including mental illness, physical disability and/or drug or alcohol addiction that keeps them from finding housing or living safely on their own. This group tends to benefit from long-term assistance that can help them maintain stable housing with support.

- Will Nots – These are who choose to not enter shelter or housing even if it is available.”

Which brings me to the origin of this particular story on homelessness. A subset of the “Have Nots” are those who are homeless but live semi-sheltered in their RVs or automobiles. They are in transition – hoping to hang on until they can find more permanent shelter and praying that they and their children do not wind up on the streets. Although they may have a job, and a bit of mobile shelter they aren’t without their problems. One of those problems is where can they park their RV or vehicle without incurring the wrath of business owners or residents in the chosen area? 

Thus, when the caravan of RVs and cars hits your neighborhood – what should you do? Most folks want these folks to have a safe place to park, but the “not in my backyard” feelings are very strong. They worry about safety for themselves and their families. They aren’t uncaring but they want the problem to be elsewhere. They’ll look to the city, country or state to do something about the problem because they feel powerless and unsafe and unable to deal with it at their neighborhood level.

The Sonoma County Chapter of the ACLU recently weighed in on this issue. They said:

“The combination of 1) a significant population of unsheltered homeless in Sonoma County;  2) the length of time that such large numbers of the homeless are forced to live “on the street” and unsheltered; and  3) the unconscionably-harsh policy of constantly forcing many of those homeless to move to “another location on the street,” from which they will inevitably once again be forcibly removed, fully constitutes a violation by Sonoma County and it's cities of those individuals human rights.”

My neighborhood is currently experiencing it. Laguna Dr. behind the Target Shopping Center on the west side of 101 off Redwood Hwy. is the “another location on the street,” now. It’s a public street. But the Laguna Dr. community is feeling uncomfortable with it being used for long term, overnight homeless camping in RVs and automobiles. Residents are being asked to sign a petition to the mayor and city council to do something about it. I’m not sure what will happen as a result of this petition. Sonoma County Sheriff's Office policy states 

“431.6   PUBLIC AREAS

The unauthorized use of public areas for the storage of personal property interferes with the rights of other members of the public for their intended purposes and can create a public health and safety hazard that adversely affects residential and commercial areas. The purpose of this policy is to maintain public areas in clean, sanitary and accessible condition to prevent the misappropriation of public areas for personal use, and to promote the public health and safety by ensuring that public areas remain readily accessible for their intended uses.” Public streets are public areas too. The complete policy on homelessness can be found at:

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/542ec317e4b0d41ade8801fb/t/5c5e2905e4966be7f74eb195/1549674757525/homeless-persons.pd.pdf

Which brings me to the origin of this particular story on homelessness. A subset of the “Have Nots” are those who are homeless but live semi-sheltered in their RVs or automobiles. They are in transition – hoping to hang on until they can find more permanent shelter and praying that they and their children do not wind up on the streets. Although they may have a job, and a bit of mobile shelter they aren’t without their problems. One of those problems is where can they park their RV or vehicle without incurring the wrath of business owners or residents in the chosen area? 

Thus, when the caravan of RVs and cars hits your neighborhood – what should you do? Most folks want these folks to have a safe place to park, but the “not in my backyard” feelings are very strong. They worry about safety for themselves and their families. They aren’t uncaring but they want the problem to be elsewhere. They’ll look to the city, country or state to do something about the problem because they feel powerless and unsafe and unable to deal with it at their neighborhood level.

The Sonoma County Chapter of the ACLU recently weighed in on this issue. They said:

“The combination of 1) a significant population of unsheltered homeless in Sonoma County;  2) the length of time that such large numbers of the homeless are forced to live “on the street” and unsheltered; and  3) the unconscionably-harsh policy of constantly forcing many of those homeless to move to “another location on the street,” from which they will inevitably once again be forcibly removed, fully constitutes a violation by Sonoma County and it’s cities of those individuals human rights.”

The city of Rohnert Park policy and frequently asked questions about homelessness in our community are found at: https://www.rpcity.org/services/residential_services/homelessness. I suspect the city’s reaction to the petition from Laguna Drive residents will be “Enforcing Parking Restrictions - the City has established and enforces restrictions on overnight parking in several locations, including our parks. We also enforce the requirement that vehicles not be parked on public streets for more than 72 consecutive hours in the same location. “

I do understand the viewpoint of other residents in my neighborhood that believe something needs to be done. There has been an increase in minor property damage and theft. Someone took a stone turtle garden decoration off my front porch recently. So, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion, without any proof, that the theft was related to either the RV caravan or to the homeless encampment located west of my apartment complex. For residents, especially those living alone, it is unnerving to know that someone was brazen enough to be outside your apartment door stealing your property late at night. And driving on Laguna Drive with numerous RVs parked on the side of the road is unsafe. Visibility is reduced. There’s an accident waiting to happen. It also alters your lifestyle. If I want to go out on my walks – I’m conscious of the caravan and will choose to walk elsewhere to avoid the area where they are parked. 

But I don’t plan to sign the petition. Until the city finds a safe, secure place for these folks to park their vehicles, I do not want to be part of the problem pushing these semi-sheltered homeless folks into even worse and perhaps unsheltered choices. And I don’t want to chase them to “another location on the street” that might just happen to be your neighborhood and trigger your “not in my backyard...” feelings. I do encourage my city to find a safe, secure parking spot for these modern-day nomads in their RVs and Cars.  By the time this story gets printed, this particular caravan may have moved on; but the problem will still exist – somewhere else in someone else’s backyard.